David R. Henderson  

Bastiat Extended

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But, by an inference as false as it is unjust, do you know what the economists are now accused of? When we oppose making activities illegal, we are charged with being in favor of those activities. Thus, if we ask that the state not make prostitution illegal, we believe that there is nothing wrong with prostitution. If we demand that the state not make drugs illegal, we are accused of being potheads or addicts. If we advocate freedom of speech for Nazis, Communists, or anti-feminists, we are accused of being Nazis, Communists, or anti-feminists. If we say that racists should be free to hire whomever they want, we are accused of being racists.

This is an extension of a point Frederic Bastiat made in his classic article, "What is Seen and What Is Not Seen," Paragraph 1.63.


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CATEGORIES: Regulation




COMMENTS (5 to date)
Thomas writes:

Bastiat opposes state support for various activities, either through tax policy or direct subsidies. So, for example, Bastiat would oppose subsidies for prostitution, not necessarily to discourage prostitution but because subsidies would force taxpayers to support it, and thus forgo other (more productive or satisfying) uses of their money.

You're trying to make a parallel argument against the state's prohibition of certain activities. But you're really arguing about where the state should draw the line, not whether it should draw the line somewhere. For example, if murder weren't illegal and therefore went unpunished, it's almost certain that there would be more murders. The same with libel, which is a particular kind of speech that is punishable. To say that murder and libel shouldn't be prohibited would be tantamount to encouraging them. So your argument doesn't hold up across the full range of possible prohibitions by the state.

You might respond by saying that the activities that the state shouldn't prohibit are those that directly affect only the actor (e.g., drug use) or consenting adults (e.g., prostitution). That would leave room for the prohibition of certain actions (e.g., libel and murder) that directly affect other persons.

What about the state's prohibition of racism (or inferred racism) in hiring, lending, etc.? It's probably true that if the state didn't prohibit racism in hiring, lending, etc., there would be more of it. I happen to believe that the state should butt out. But that's because I prize property rights and freedom of association, and because the state's ham-fisted approach to discrimination is far more harmful than it is helpful, even for those whom it is intended to help. (See Rick Sander's work on the "mismatch" effect of affirmative-action policies, for example.)

john hare writes:

Thomas, I think you missed his point. I believe the point was that arguing against making something illegal brings accusations of indulging in whatever that something happens to be. It had very little to do with actions of the state.

Daniel Klein writes:

Yes!

See #5 here.

Weir writes:

It's bad now, but it's been so much worse. The conventional wisdom in Germany a hundred years ago was that if you were for the bourgeois virtues you were against everything noble and spiritual, everything refined or heroic or compassionate. Freedom was "English freedom." Reason was mere calculation. Individualism meant egoism. Prosperity meant money-grubbing and shallow mediocrity. The vast, interconnected, world-spanning "Zivilisation" that made everyday life so much better and more comfortable had only made life hollow and dull.

Thaomas writes:

The accusation is un just but may occur because Libertarian arguments are often made on a priori grounds, not on cost-benefit grounds.

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